Bebe was sitting on the steps of the verandah cleaning her ears with a matchstick when she first saw Akram. He pushed open the front gate, then stopped to straighten his kameez. He was short, but he looked wiry and strong, like a length of rope. There was something plain about him, forthright, as he stood against the lines of traffic on Durand Road. He marched up the driveway, which curved round the shady garden, and when he stared up at the big house, at the tall red brick walls, at the columns guarding the house with their expansive girth, a certain satisfaction filled her.
“Ma-ji,” he smiled politely, but, to her surprise, he didn’t seem at all intimidated by the house behind her. “I have an appointment.” He was probably in his midtwenties but, like most men of his class, he looked much older. The clipped haircut gave away his military past, as did the carefully trimmed black moustache that wriggled above his lips as he smiled. She folded her arms across her chest and looked away. He cleared his throat and spoke again, “Ma-ji, I have an appointment. Here. At eleven.”
“No, you don’t. You have an appointment in the kitchen. Round the back.” He nodded solemnly as though he approved of both the correction and the sourness of her tone. Then he smoothed down his dark hair, slicked back with oil, even though it was perfectly neat. He turned to face the road. The rust-colored Convent of Jesus and Mary School on the other side was just visible from the verandah, the line of endless arches along its cloisters disappearing into the distance, the crucifix on its roof reaching up toward the sky.
“It’s a good school. One of the best in Lahore,” she said. He didn’t say anything.
“Baji went there, and her daughter,” Bebe said pointedly, proudly. He nodded, threw her a tight smile and walked down the driveway. He disappeared round the corner where the cobbles dissolved into a muddy track that led to the quarters; a half-acre plot with six small homes standing on it, most of them just one room but some with two. If the big house had not impressed him, the scale of the servants’ quarters, the largest in the neighborhood, surely would.
But later, when Seema, the cook, walked him through the place, introducing him to the quarters’ residents, explaining some of his duties—buying groceries, collecting the washing from the dhobhi, preparing Sahib’s wardrobe, serving at table—Bebe noticed that although he listened attentively and was courteous enough, he looked singularly unimpressed. This job, his bored gaze suggested, would be little more than a time-pass till something better came along.
She didn’t pay him a great deal of attention. Many young men like him had come and gone in the years she had worked in the big house. And Akram represented the worst of them. An experienced batman, he probably believed he’d been serving his commissioned officer, his unit, the corps, but she knew that it was the officer’s Begum he actually served. And her children. His thin smile suggested he didn’t really believe he was a servant. The prospect of being one in their chaotic household would likely seem to him a waste of his talents. Although she guessed this was true, as only a smart man could survive lengthy service in an officer’s household, she knew it was also true he had only ever been a servant whether he liked it or not.
From the courtyard, she watched him unpack his case that first night as she combed her hair. He was to be her neighbor in the quarters. He carefully stuck a photograph on the wall by his bed. She couldn’t see well from where she sat but she guessed it was a picture of his children. They couldn’t be much more than babies. She remembered the feel of her daughter Nasreen’s cheek against hers when Nasreen was a baby, warm and creamy like the film of skin on hot milk. Bebe’s face colored with the memory. She felt foolish; Nasreen was in her fifties now, troubled by the aches and pains that came with age. Her smile was still the same—shy and eager to please. But Bebe rarely saw her daughter, or her sons. When she did, they treated her with the utmost deference, as they might a respected benefactor. On those occasions she would run her hand over Nasreen’s dutifully bowed head in the manner of a distant relation; sometimes, though, when the impulse was strong, she drew her close—just briefly, forgetting the formality that had grown between them. She swallowed. She had given up the privilege of motherhood to provide for her children. Her mother had raised the three of them. She remembered their long, teenaged arms wrapped around her when her mother died, their wet faces against her neck, their torsos heaving with each sob, and even in the midst of her own grief, she felt the gloomy pain of knowing they would never weep like this for her.
She dropped her comb. Seema’s youngest daughter ran over from her seat on the step outside the kitchen to pick it up. She clutched it in her chubby fingers. It was pale pink, half its teeth missing.
“Here you go, Bebe-ji,” she said. She held it up but seemed reluctant to hand it over. Bebe plucked it from the girl’s hand and laid it down next to her as she plaited her hair. The girl stared at it. “I can comb your hair, if you like,” she said.
Bebe touched her head, running her fingers through the gray-orange streaks in her hair, the result of countless irregular applications of henna. “Like we’re in the beauty parlor?” she said. The girl, failing to detect the mockery in Bebe’s tone, flashed her a toothless grin.
“You get inside that kitchen and help your mother for a change, foolish girl,” Bebe said. The girl pursed her lips and went back to her seat on the kitchen step, glancing over at Bebe every now and then. Bebe ignored her. She was used to the others coveting her things. She ran her fingers over the sharp points of the comb’s teeth. It had belonged to Baji, just like the large bifocals she wore, although if she was honest, she couldn’t see much better with the spectacles on than without. These were just a few of the many things she had accumulated over the long years of her service from the stream of unwanted items Baji passed on to the servants: broken flashlights, half-used toiletries, threadbare towels, valuables on which Bebe, thanks to her lofty position in the quarters, had first claim.
The girl was cleaning the dirt from under her nails with great concentration now. Bebe remembered Nasreen again—chewing her nails, sucking the end of her braid, playing with the fine hairs on her legs. She put the comb down and reached for her hookah. In the dim light of the evening, memories surfaced. But if she drew the tobacco deep enough into her lungs she could chase them away.
As she had anticipated, Akram was both intelligent and professional. He was also astute in his dealings with those living inside and outside the big house, patiently enduring Baji’s moods and managing the frequent tensions in the quarters that sprung up amongst the staff. Or so she thought, until Seema told her some weeks later that Akram had been talking about her.
“He says you sit around telling everybody else what to do, but you don’t actually do much of anything yourself. And you never check if work’s been done properly or not, so the place doesn’t look anything like it should,” Seema said. Bebe felt Seema staring at her, waiting for a reaction, but Bebe carried on smearing her betel leaf with paste, folding its corners to form a neat triangle.
“We were all shocked that he would say such things, Bebe-ji. Shocked.”
“Is that it?”
“No, there was more, Bebe-ji. But I don’t like to say. He’s just a dreadful man. I think someone should talk to Baji about him.”
“What was it, what was the rest of it?”
“Oh, nothing, Bebe-ji. Forget about it. Forget him,” Seema said. Bebe didn’t say anything—she knew she wouldn’t have to.
“I just can’t respect a man who can sit here among us saying he doesn’t understand why Baji would keep a tiresome, nearly dead old woman who doesn’t know when to stop talking. Can you imagine? He has no idea who you are in the big house, who you are to us.” Bebe didn’t as much as turn to look at Seema as she spoke, despite Seema’s animated impression of Akram’s thick Punjabi. Instead, she chewed her betel leaf, its bitter taste filling her mouth. “Oh, and he says your voice gives him a headache. The nerve.”
At seventy-nine, a record age for a woman of her situation, especially given the untreated high blood pressure and arthritis from which she suffered, Bebe knew her continued survival was surprising, if not miraculous. Yet she had never thought of herself as nearly dead. Nearly dead. It had the unpleasant suggestion of ought to be dead, as though she were hanging on to life in defiance of God’s will. And certainly no one had ever criticized her style of management. With fifty years of work behind her, she was the longest-serving member of the staff. She had an importance and authority beyond that of any other servant in the quarters or even the neighborhood: Didn’t he know her opinions were respected, sought after? And having lived an unusually long and hard life, hadn’t she earned the right to speak her mind? Perhaps, at times, she did talk over some of the others in the quarters. But this lone privilege of age had always been tolerated both inside and outside the big house. As for the matter of her voice, it gave her a headache too. Within a single phrase, it could lurch from a deep croak to a high-pitched shriek, and she could hear in it an inflection of irritability that recast all exchanges, even her warmest, as unpleasant rebukes.
“I just can’t respect a man who can sit here among us saying he doesn’t understand why Baji would keep a tiresome, nearly dead old woman who doesn’t know when to stop talking. Can you imagine?”
She was surprised at how glum she felt when she heard Seema’s report, her vanity pricked far more than she could have imagined, but she guessed Akram wanted her to know he’d been talking about her. Perhaps he was vying for position, issuing a challenge to the most senior servant in the quarters, or perhaps, professional soldier that he once was, he thought he shouldn’t have to work under someone whose authority he didn’t respect. It was true that in recent years she had relaxed her supervision of the staff—that she didn’t lead by example anymore. But she had done her fair share, hadn’t she? How many dishes had she cleared, how many girls had she trained, showing them how to dust Baji’s ornaments, how to organize the linens the way Baji liked them, supervising them as they polished floors, getting down on her hands and knees and showing them how to do the job properly when she had to? She had spent decades looking after the house, and now she was tired, she ached, and she was, in truth, just waiting for the end.
He wanted her to react, that was certain, but was he hoping for a confrontation in the quarters or a long, drawn-out backbiting campaign played out in front of Baji? It was only when she noted how rarely he came out of his room to sit in the courtyard with them in the evenings, how aloof he seemed when he refused to take a puff from the hookah they shared, that she wondered if, miserable and alone in a new city, he was just hoping she would urge Baji to dismiss him and free him of the big house? She couldn’t be sure of the man, so she decided that rather than confront him she would avoid him. A man like Akram, with, clearly, no sense of discretion, would be gone before long whether she intervened or not. So, despite the fact that they worked side by side all day and that they were neighbors in the quarters, she stayed out of his way. But that changed the day Bebe quarrelled with Lambhi Ammah.
Lambhi ammah was tall and thin like a cigarette. She was also rarely seen without one hanging from her thick lips. Like Bebe, she had worked in the quarters for most of the sixty-two years of her life, but unlike Bebe, she did not work in the big house but for the servants themselves. She cleaned their latrines. This didn’t stop her swaggering through the quarters with a mysterious look of contentment on her face, as if she were in possession of something quite wonderful—a secret, a lover, or some other piece of good fortune. Absurd, Bebe thought, when the woman’s life was spent working in their crudely built toilets with just a metal cup, a foul broom, and her hands. Bebe couldn’t fault Lambhi Ammah; she was reliable, efficient, and pleasant enough company, a quality that made her squalid presence tolerable. Still, the old woman’s filthy profession, her caste, the crucifix around her neck made her a loathsome figure, so much so that when she was offered tea after work each day, it was given to her in a chipped cup without a handle, and kept aside especially for her. A cup no one else was willing to touch. Lambhi Ammah held it out as it was filled from the pot on the stove by Seema or Bebe and she washed it up herself before putting it back on the shelf, where it stood alone, a safe distance from everyone else’s crockery. Each day the sight of Lambhi Ammah sitting on the kitchen floor, slurping tea from her cup, that same satisfied look on her face, irked Bebe.
When news reached Bebe that Lambhi Ammah’s cup had shattered, she felt as if the wretched woman were trying to provoke her, even though Seema told her it wasn’t the sweeperess’s fault. Seema’s daughters had been playing a game of D-o-n-k-e-y with an old tennis ball in the kitchen as the household napped after lunch, and the game had come to an end when the ball hurtled into the shelf by the stove. Bebe was picking through the servants’ collection of mismatched china handed down to them by Baji, searching for a suitable replacement for Lambhi Ammah, when she was interrupted by a call from the drawing room to discuss what should be done about the poorly stitched new curtains that had put Baji in a foul mood.
When Bebe eventually returned to the shadowy kitchen, she stopped dead in her tracks. She blinked, squinting into the darkness. Were her eyes playing tricks on her? Lambhi Ammah was sitting in the corner, her lips pressed against a dainty white tea cup with a pale pink stripe curled around its rim. Bebe took a sharp breath. Lambhi Ammah had picked out a cup for herself. And not just any cup.
“What are you doing?” Bebe’s voice quivered.
“Bebe,” Lambhi Ammah began.
“What do you think you are doing?” she said again, “That’s mine, that’s mine.”
“It’s mine. Mine, mine.” It took Bebe a moment to realize it was her voice that was rising to a scream, one that was as sharp as the screeching of the crows on the roof.
And then, even though she wasn’t sure how she had moved so quickly across the kitchen, she was standing over Lambhi Ammah. The joints that barely managed to shuffle her from room to room most days came to life, invigorated by an anger so violent she was trembling with it.
“Put it down, put it down,” she panted.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Lambhi Ammah said, “I didn’t—” but before she could say it again Bebe’s arm flew up.
“Witch! Witch! You lying witch.”
Lambhi Ammah held out her left arm defensively but it was too late. Bebe snatched the cup from her other hand and threw it against the wall. The china broke and the tea dribbled down the wall. Both women stared, startled for a moment, at the broken cup, which lay in two halves on the floor; and Bebe brought her hand up to her chest. The sweeperess reached for the fragments, lifting them as carefully as she might pick up the broken body of a small creature, “It can be fixed, we can fix it,” she said.
“Don’t touch it, don’t you touch it,” Bebe said, still enraged. Lambhi Ammah froze, unable to put the pieces back down or move them to safety. The old woman’s long dark fingers were curled round the perfectly white china, and Bebe was disgusted. Filth, she thought, filth. And without really knowing for sure what she was doing, she reached out toward the counter lined with heavy pots and pans and plates.
Lambhi Ammah looked up at her for a moment before turning her gaze downward, resigned. She folded up her long, lean body into a ball but that could not protect it from the insults that tumbled from Bebe’s mouth or the clattering metal utensils she threw at her. Bebe was surprised by how quickly the words came, bouncing into the room’s darkened corners. Faster, much faster than she could reach for things to throw at the old woman.
Then it was quiet. All she could hear was a steady rasping chant of “choori, choori, choori,” that sounded as though it were coming from some distant place, not from her own dry mouth. She thought her legs might buckle. She was lightheaded, nauseated. She could see even less than usual through her oversized bifocals. She realized she was crying. Through the mist before her, she thought she saw Lambhi Ammah smirking. Or perhaps her face was crumbling. She couldn’t tell. She couldn’t see anything clearly anymore.
It was Akram who led her out of there. She didn’t remember leaving the kitchen or walking the ten steps across the courtyard. But there she was in the safety of her own room. A room crowded with bags and trunks and cases, loaded with things from the big house, things that were hers and hers alone. Akram sat her down and got her a glass of water, but she couldn’t drink it. She knew that in rooms all over the house, Baji and the staff must have heard every word. She could see them exchanging wide-eyed glances, their hands clapped across mouths edging into half-excited smiles. As the tension in her body subsided, a terrible fear crept up on her. As despised as any choori was by all in the quarters, there were certain expectations of her, of dignity, decorum, as the most senior servant on the staff. She felt breathless as she thought about it. The fall in stature would not be immediate—the process would be slow: first they would share discreet looks and eye-rolls as she spoke, then they would ignore her requests to repeat things she hadn’t heard in the ear that was deaf. Finally, they would decide the best way to handle the senile old woman was to humor her or ignore her. She wouldn’t have come as far as she had in the big house had she not understood the politics of life in the quarters. She knew the theatricality of her actions had made her vulnerable. As though he knew what she was thinking, Akram said, “Don’t worry, Bebe-ji, I won’t let her get away with this,” and he marched back into the kitchen.
She heard him. Everyone must have heard him. “Is that any way to treat Bebe-ji?” Bebe sat up, struck by the incredulity in his voice, by the firm expression of her importance. “Is it?” he asked again. “I’m shocked that you would show such a lack of respect, and to Bebe-ji, of all people,” he said. The old woman didn’t say anything. “You know full well you people can’t come here and touch our things. It’s disgusting. You do understand that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, flatly.
Bebe thought of the old woman sitting in the corner of the kitchen. Get out, she wanted to say, get out of my house.
“You should be ashamed, really. Yes?” Akram said. The old woman was quiet for a moment and then conceded. “Okay,” she said, “okay.”
“Well, good. I’m glad you realize that,” he said, “Now. What time did you come today?”
Lambhi Ammah said nothing.
“Good, good,” he said, ignoring her silence, “we’ll expect you at the usual hour tomorrow. ” He was brusque, making it clear it was time for her to leave, efficiently putting the scene to one side.
The kitchen screen door opened and slammed shut. Lambhi Ammah set off toward the back of the quarters. She walked slowly. Bebe thought of the old woman’s face. She had the fleeting image of a wound. She couldn’t have hurt her, could she? Her heart raced and then a deep shame filled her, like a flush rising over her body. She brought her hands up to her face; her skin was burning. She had done nothing wrong, nothing. It was the choori’s fault, all of it.
When Akram returned to her room, he seemed pleased with his handling of the matter. No one had lost their heads, or their jobs, his smile seemed to say. She knew the task of finding a new sweeperess would have fallen to him, and finding someone as good, as cheap as Lambhi Ammah would not be easy. The choori had been publicly put in her place but without causing lasting damage to the household. He was a smart man.
Bebe thought of the old woman’s face. She had the fleeting image of a wound. She couldn’t have hurt her, could she?
“It’s all taken care of, Bebe-ji. She knows she was at fault,” he reassured her, “now you can forget about the whole thing.” She understood she was to let the matter go. That afternoon, one by one, every servant in the quarters came to commiserate with her. They shook their heads at Lambhi Ammah’s behavior and said they didn’t know that, in her place, they could have been as gracious as Bebe. They made a point of speaking to Lambhi Ammah contemptuously or not at all for a number of days, until eventually everything returned to normal.
In the aftermath of the quarrel with Lambhi Ammah, Bebe felt the weight of her debt to Akram. She wasn’t sure why he had done what he had done, particularly when she knew how he’d spoken of her. But he was young, and if she had learned anything over the years it was that young people spoke and acted thoughtlessly more often than not. And young men, in particular, felt the need to elevate their status in the quarters, didn’t they, given that so much of what they did in the big house was little better than women’s work. His talk suggested at an immaturity, that was all. Yes, she thought, he was young, a boy, really. His defense of her had revealed something more important; that, like her, he understood that a respect for position mattered, both in the quarters and in life. She realized that forging an alliance with him might be worth her while. And so, difficult as it was to knock on his door given all she knew he’d said about her, she did, and she went with an offering: a packet of cigarettes. As she expected, he declined until she pressed him, and then he asked her if she would have one with him. She was surprised by how pleased she was by the invitation.
“She hasn’t been a nuisance to you again, has she, Bebe-ji? The choori?” he said, puffing at the cigarette. She shook her head.
“You just let me know if you have any more trouble. These chuhras—people have been putting ideas into their heads. Even when I was serving I saw it. The Christians were . . . well, getting above themselves. We can’t have that happening here, in our home. It’s like they say: give them a hand, they’ll take off your arm.”
“It couldn’t be used again, that cup. I had to throw it.”
“Of course,” he said, “once it’s been polluted. There are good reasons we don’t go near them, good reasons that they shouldn’t handle our things.”
She thought of the old woman wading in their shit. Her bloodshot eyes, and her hands—hands no one wanted to touch, not to congratulate her on the birth of her grandchild or to console her on the death of her son, Joseph, even though they’d all known him since he was a boy.
“And the haram things they eat. Ouf,” he shuddered.
Bebe remembered her mother telling her that Christians ate pigs and carrion. She had never believed it; no one she knew had ever even seen a pig, and the woman could likely afford little more than daal on her wages, as was true for all of them. But Akram was right; they were unclean.
“I’ll deal with her, if you like, Bebe-ji. She might be a good worker but we need to set boundaries, firm ones, and you shouldn’t be put through any more worry over some choori.” He shook his head again in disbelief at the presumptuousness of the old woman, and Bebe felt, for the first time in a long while, understood.
It became a ritual. The nightly cigarettes they shared, away from the others. And it seemed to her that he was courting her as much as she was him. She never confronted him about the things she knew he’d said about her. He’d been new then, finding his feet. What mattered was he understood now that he needed an ally—and he had chosen her. She tried to talk a little less and listen a little more. After some months she noticed she had stopped worrying about how much she said or the volume at which she spoke, and she realized they must have become friends. It was the most comforting feeling she had experienced in years. And what a friend he was. True to his word, she never had to speak to the choori again, and after a time, to her relief, she remembered the day Lambhi Ammah touched her cup only in certain moments, and then only hazily. But that wasn’t all. He insisted that she be taken to the dentist when her jaw throbbed as her last tooth gave up the struggle to go on. He told her jokes the others thought too coarse to share with her. And on nights when loneliness hung about their rooms like a dismal fog, he would buy a packet of hard toffees for them to share as they smoked.
“Bilquis hasn’t written to me for three weeks,” he said, lighting her cigarette.
“She’s busy with the children. Think how hard it is for her when you’re away.”
“Or she’s forgotten me.” He smiled, but his forehead was lined, his face knotted.
“No woman forgets her husband. Well, not a good husband. A layabout, yes.”
“Bebe-ji. How can you know which one I am?” he joked.
“You’re here, aren’t you? This is all for them.” She spoke as if chiding him; it had become her way of showing him how much she cared about him.
“These are getting stuck in my teeth,” he said.
“Leave the rest for me then, they don’t give me any such trouble.” He laughed and she flushed with happiness. He had become something like a son to her. A son. She glowed at the thought of it, but as he got up to leave, the warmth she felt curdled as she wondered what it would have been like to sit with her own children in the evenings, to really know them, to offer them advice, to comfort them as adults, as friends.
He hadn’t planned to stay long, she was right about that. But as months turned to years, as he realized there was nowhere else to go, Bebe saw him determine to devote his life to the household. Perhaps the part he had played the day of the row with the choori had done it; he had upheld order in the quarters and, in doing so, ensured the efficient running of the big house. She was glad. She felt as if she had someone to whom she could pass on her knowledge and experience. A successor. It was as if the things she had done here now had real value. And he had promise. He had the potential to stay the course as she had, and although she didn’t say anything to him for fear of raising his expectations, she believed one day he could be rewarded with a place among the elevated, like her.
The following summer, the Loo wind blustering outside, Bebe stood in the corridor of the big house, organizing the cupboard filled with Baji’s table linens—the crocheted doilies, embroidered napkins, and lace tablecloths. She was checking for moth holes, pulling out anything that could do with a little extra starch, when she heard Seema talking to Baji in her room. Her hearing wasn’t what it used to be, but she could still identify a hushed tone. When she stepped into Baji’s room, Baji was lying on the bed, having her legs massaged by Seema’s daughters, while Seema sat on the floor. She caught Seema flashing Baji a look as she came in.
“Did you finish making the kheer?” Bebe asked.
Seema nodded. “It’s in the fridge. It’ll be ready in time for tonight.”
“Sahib likes it ice cold,” she said.
“Yes, Bebe-ji.” She saw Seema roll her eyes before turning to look at Baji.
“Bebe-ji, do you know anything about this?” Baji said. “About Akram and this girl?”
Bebe glanced at Seema before folding her arms across her chest.
“A girl from Heera Mandi,” one of Seema’s daughters piped up, her eyes wide with the scandal of it.
“I know nothing about it, but obviously it’s not true.”
“Dhobi saw him, his wife told me, the night before last,” Seema said.
“And what was Dhobi doing there?”
“He collects washing from some of the kothas there. And he saw Akram bhai there. With a prostitute. He saw it with his very own eyes.”
“With his very own eyes indeed. Washing from the kothas. I wouldn’t take anything that lecherous old man has to say seriously. He was probably there on suspicious business of his own, and for some reason he’s trying to malign a decent young man.”
“I told Baji you’d side with him. We all know how much you favor him,” Seema said. Bebe pursed her lips, feeling exposed by the accusation.
“Bebe-ji,” Baji said, “I have to tell Sahib about this. He won’t be happy. I mean, we can’t have a man living here who does that kind of thing.”
“Baji, it’s not true. Ask him yourself, he’ll tell you. He’s a decent family man. A good Muslim.” Her voice rose. She stood up as straight as she could. “Someone around here is trying to ruin his reputation, I just can’t imagine why. Except that good men always attract enemies and the attention of the evil eye. It’s all lies. Lies.”
She stared at Baji, unblinking. Seema’s daughters turned to their mother, as did Bebe, to see if she might press on with her charge, but Seema stared down at the chipped polish on her nails. Baji nodded. “All right, Bebe-ji,” she said.
“Someone around here is trying to ruin his reputation, I just can’t imagine why. Except that good men always attract enemies.”
When Bebe left the room, she felt she had done as much as she could to snuff the rumor out. Of course, she suspected the sighting of Akram was real. And, of course, she was unsurprised; Akram was a young man working away from home for most of the year. It was only natural. The scandal was that Akram had been seen by someone from the neighborhood. She knew in her heart he was a good boy. The truth that he wasn’t as pious as she had imagined didn’t wound her as much as the knowledge of his loneliness, the shame of it, the shame of everyone in the quarters knowing that he lay in his room each night, cold with longing.
That night as she combed her hair he came to her room to ask her if she wanted a smoke, and she told him for the first time that she didn’t feel like it.
“Is something wrong, Bebe-ji?”
“You know, you should sit outside with the others sometimes too,” she said.
“You’re getting tired of my company, Bebe-ji. I can see it. I talk too much about my worries.”
“Don’t be foolish, boy. But it’s important to maintain good relationships with everyone here. Even with those imbeciles. All this time wasted in the company of an old woman, maybe you’re as stupid as the rest of them.”
She felt guilty. She should have urged him to make some more secure alliances earlier. Perhaps then the others would have ignored the rumor as it crept its way through the quarters. Even if Baji took the matter no further this time, Akram’s situation in the household would be forever precarious.
“Bilquis says the same thing. About me being an imbecile.” He got up to leave, lighting his cigarette. She couldn’t bring it up directly—that would humiliate him—but she felt compelled to say something that might help him.
“Akram, beta. If anyone says anything to you about something that isn’t their business, you just tell them you don’t know what they’re talking about. Even if it’s Baji . . . or Sahib.”
She saw him pause, confusion flashing across his face as he glanced over at the courtyard where the others sat talking. He seemed about to say something, but then, perhaps, he thought better of it because he smiled instead. “I didn’t polish Sahib’s shoes today,” he said.
“Well, you’d better do it before you sleep.”
He nodded. And as he headed into the darkness, she thought that if he denied everything, he might, perhaps, still survive.
Bebe sat in the doorway of Akram’s room, watching him pack. It had happened faster, much faster than she could ever have imagined; just two days after her warning Sahib had dismissed him. Now his shoes, shiny and black like beetles, darted this way and that as he gathered his belongings: shaving soap, a photograph of his three skinny daughters smiling into the camera’s lens, and an artist’s impression of President Zia-ul-Haq gazing benignly into the middle distance. Bebe felt a sudden swell of anxiety as he pressed his stiffly ironed clothes into his suitcase. It had taken almost no time to empty the room.
As he stood over the open case, positioning the President’s portrait a respectful distance from his plastic slippers, she sat on her haunches pretending to clean her hookah, working a toothpick through the small tobacco bowl’s openings. Akram seemed not to have noticed the absence of burnt tobacco scrapings at her feet or that the toothpick was clean; or if he had, he didn’t say anything. She imagined he knew why she was really there as she puffed noisily through the rubber tubing, and more importantly, she felt he valued the gesture.
Akram tucked the photograph of his children into his shirt pocket. He tapped the pocket and smoothed out his shirt. She watched as he counted his cash, as he pressed his hands inside the drawers of the small cupboard, feeling for any forgotten items, and as he glanced at the references in the envelope that Baji had given him. He had already checked these things several times over, but, as if performing a ritual for comfort’s sake, he did it again. She tried to imagine a blank space where he stood, but she couldn’t. The thought of life without him in the quarters was unbearable. In other circumstances there would have been well-wishers, kind farewells, small tokens of thanks for Akram to remember them by. But no one had come.
Akram wiped the sweat from his neck with a handkerchief, and then he went through the contents of his suitcase again. She noticed the slight tremor in his hands. He was worried; he was returning to his wife, children, and village unannounced and with the news that he was without work. It wouldn’t be the homecoming any of them were expecting. Bebe understood the dread and excitement of returning to a family you saw for no more than two months of the year. The terror that you might confuse the names of your children, that they might not know you. After the initial elation, when all these fears proved unfounded, came the vague sense of having wandered into someone else’s life. And you had—a life that you disrupted when you returned. Although room was made for you, beds moved, space created in the cupboards, there seemed no real place for you in the routine and ways of the household, no way to understand the shorthand that bound its members together. And then came a terrible fear that the family life you had imagined in that small room in the city was the one that you preferred to this real, live, unrecognizable version before you. Bebe shuddered.
A knock. They both looked up. Lambhi Ammah stood in the doorway. “I’ve finished for today. I swept up to the front gate too. The mali’s boy hadn’t done it.”
Akram didn’t say anything. He looked as if he wasn’t sure it was his place to remark on it anymore. She turned to go, but then stopped. “My salaams to your family, Akram bhai. Have a safe journey home.”
Bebe bit her lip; of all the people to come and say good-bye. She felt even worse for him. What could be more devastating, more offensive than the pity of a choori? Akram looked embarrassed, but then he smiled. He seemed grateful. “Thank you, Ammah-ji.” Lambhi Ammah nodded and left.
“She’s a good worker, Bebe-ji,” he said, apologetically.
Although he rarely mentioned Lambhi Ammah to her, she had sensed in his occasional commentary a certain respect for her steadfastness, her professionalism. She knew Akram’s departure meant she would now have to contend with the sweeperess, and the thought of talking to the old woman again made her fretful.
“Lots of them are good workers,” she said.
He paused, “True, Bebe-ji. You could find someone else as good as her. I suppose we could all be replaced by others who are just as good,” he said.
“That’s not true for you.”
“It’s not true for you, Bebe-ji, but as it turns out I’m not so different from the chuhras around here, really.”
She winced at his words. Of course he was different, they were all different from the chuhras. They might not sit at Baji’s table or on the sofa, or in the deep arm chairs in the drawing room, but they were welcome in the house, they could touch the door handles, they could make Baji’s tea for her. Baji did not cringe at Seema or her daughters’ hands massaging her. No choori would ever know a life like theirs. There was a place for them in the household and if his luck had not run out, he could have truly belonged to the big house, as she did.
The case snapped shut. There had been no struggle to close it—three years’ worth of Akram’s life packed in its entirety in just over half an hour.
“Well, Bebe-ji,” he smiled, “that’s everything.”
Tears sprang from her eyes. He looked sad and yet surprised too by his own sadness.
“The children will be happy to see you,” she said.
“I wish I had something for them. I suppose I’ll have to be enough,” he said trying hard to sound cheerful.
“It’s not your fault, son. These people, they get jealous, they say things out of envy.”
He was silent a moment. “I don’t know why I stayed, Bebe-ji. Three years. Three years and I have nothing to show for it,” he said. It was true. There wasn’t much to show for his time here. He had kept his family fed and clothed, but there were no savings on wages like theirs, and now there was no prospect of an easy start—no funds to set up a small business or to buy land.
“I should have left long ago,” he said.
She could find nothing to say to comfort him. She knew she must do something. She blinked back her tears. “Tea before you go,” she said.
“And a cigarette,” he said, “one last cigarette.” He managed a smile, and Bebe felt a little better.
She returned with tea and some leftovers she had found in the kitchen. She had taken her time arranging these treats on the best plate she could find. But she came to a stop a few feet before she reached Akram’s doorway—realizing even through her vision-distorting bifocals that something was not right. The room was empty. She turned her head, first one way and then the other, looking about the courtyard. Akram had left without saying good-bye. She couldn’t quite make her body move, so she stood there for a minute. Then she shuffled back to the kitchen, poured the tea in the sink, put the leftovers away, and washed the plate.
She did not glance at the empty room as she made her way back to hers. Once inside, she bolted the door and sat on the bed. She lifted her kameez to her face and sobbed into the thin blue cotton. He had left no contact and she knew she would never see him again.
She slept most of the evening, exhausted, drained by the grief of Akram’s leaving. She lay on her bed, feeling as if she couldn’t get up. She pictured his room next door, empty now of the few possessions that had made his room his: the photographs of his children, his shaving things, the Bata slippers he kept in the corner. She had always thought her own small room, cluttered with discarded items collected over many years, had the feel of a real home, unlike the rest of the quarters. Brimming with precious things, it underlined her permanence here, her difference from the others, her connection to the big house. There was so much to show for her time here. But as she surveyed the room, she wondered: What, if anything, would be worth taking if she left?
She wasn’t entirely sure why, but she felt compelled to take everything apart. Perhaps then she might understand better what this collection meant.
She got up. Slowly, methodically, bag by bag, case by case, she began sifting through the items she had amassed over the years. There were tens of them, maybe hundreds: English magazines she couldn’t read, telephone directories, empty perfume bottles, men’s shoes. She tried to date each item—the fan was given to her to make room for the new glass bookcase in the drawing room, now filled with a pretty collection of glass animals and other precious ornaments; the big trunk when the roof over the corridor lined with luggage was leaking. The hair dryer she never used because it burnt her thinly covered scalp was given to her the year that her granddaughter became pregnant for the first time. She hadn’t seen her great-grandchild till he was well over a year old. And the moth-eaten duvet? That was the year Nasreen was sick with typhoid fever. She hadn’t gone home then either; Baji’s daughter was getting married and there was just too much to do. In the big trunks there was more. She found tins filled with buttons and hairpins, she rattled jars of nails, tore out pages from old calendars, removed the backs of clocks and plugs to look inside them. She wasn’t entirely sure why, but she felt compelled to take everything apart. Perhaps then she might understand better what this collection meant. Then she would know why she herself had stayed so long.
Sunlight filtered in through the window above the door, waking her. She blinked. Seema was standing over her, her brow furrowed with worry.
“It’s okay! She’s okay!” Seema called to her daughters, who were standing in the doorway. “Tell Baji, she’s okay. But we still need Doctor-sahib to come.”
She felt Seema’s cool hand on her forehead. “Bebe-ji, can you hear me?”
Of course I can hear you, you’re on top of me, she wanted to say, but all that came out was a croak, her mouth dry, her throat sore.
“And bring some water for Bebe-ji,” she yelled as the oldest girl disappeared. “Oh, Bebe-ji, we were worried. It’s almost ten. And you still not up. It’s not like you, I said to the girls.”
“We thought you were dead, Bebe-ji,” Seema’s youngest said from the doorway.
“Shut-up,” Seema hissed at her, “I thought I told you to go and tell Baji we need a doctor. Go with your sister.”
A doctor? Bebe felt panicked. “No,” she managed, and then again, more firmly, “No. I don’t need a doctor.”
“Bebe-ji, when I tell Baji about this, I’m sure she’ll agree we need help . . . ” Her voice trailed off as she scanned the room, its floor covered in yellowing papers and rags and magazines—chaos that probably suggested, at best, some kind of frantic search and, at worst, an act of madness.
“I mean, Bebe-ji, what happened? Why?” Seema stared at her.
Bebe knew the room must look terrible, frightening even to Seema. “Seema, please. Listen to me. Don’t go asking about a doctor. I’m fine. I was tidying up.”
Seema looked sceptical, “Tidying up?”
“I’m asking you,” Bebe knew she sounded desperate, “please, Seema, please. Not a doctor.”
Behind Seema the household was deep into its midmorning routine; Lambhi Ammah was sweeping the courtyard, Dhobhi was waiting for the laundry to be handed to him, and Seema’s youngest was dawdling by the kitchen door. It was like any other day except for Akram’s absence. Perhaps, it occurred to her, he’d left without saying good-bye to spare her pain or even his own, but the thought was of little comfort. She ached and she was unsure if this was rooted in her sense of loss or in a longing for his return. “Tell them,” she said, “tell them, I want to go and see my Nasreen.” And there, just in saying her daughter’s name out loud, was relief, the sense of something blooming in her chest.
Seema sighed and then nodded, understanding everything now, it seemed. She patted Bebe’s hand, “Okay, Bebe-ji. I’ll tell them. And I’ll send the girls in to help clean up. Okay?”
Seema’s daughter was playing hopscotch outside the kitchen and Bebe thought of sitting with Nasreen on the rope bed, shelling peas, watching her daughter’s grandchildren, her great-granchildren playing in the sun.
The girls didn’t seem to know where to begin as they picked their way through Bebe’s things, staring at the mess as if they could think of no other way to deal with it. But Seema didn’t notice their idleness when she returned. She told Bebe that Baji had agreed to cancelling the doctor’s visit. But Baji had also said that with the household shortstaffed now, perhaps it wasn’t the best time for Bebe to visit Nasreen. Seema looked at Bebe anxiously. Could she wait a little longer? Just till they found a new man?
Bebe took off her glasses and wiped them with her dupatta before wiping her face, her watery eyes. This loss was familiar, and she had swallowed it so often that she expected she would do so again easily, but she didn’t. She felt, instead, its depth, its vastness.
“I know it’s not ideal,” Seema said, “and I told Baji that Akram bhai’s leaving has—has made you a little lonely, so she sent this especially for you, Bebe-ji.” Seema held up a small black transistor radio. She swung the radio around, showing it to Bebe. “She thought this might help. See? You’ll have company now.”
Bebe felt her muscles stiffen, a cold numbness in her bones. Seema smiled; Bebe’s mouth felt dry. “They even put in new cells. Isn’t that good?” Seema opened the small cover on the back to show her the shiny red batteries. When Seema switched the radio on, her daughters approached, abandoning their halfhearted cleaning project. Excitedly they made a grab for the radio, but Seema held it high so their small hands couldn’t reach.
“This belongs to Bebe-ji.” The girls complained, but Seema handed the hissing radio to Bebe. “Get back to work and finish up,” she yelled at her girls as she left, but instead the girls made themselves comfortable next to Bebe. “Twist it that way, Bebe-ji,” the older one said to Bebe, who was staring at the radio. Bebe turned the dial. The radio spluttered static, and then the crackly sound of a DJ laughing. They all stiffened—the sound was so very distant, like the cackle of a ghost—and then the girls laughed.
The kitchen screen door banged shut. The girls were too interested in the radio to look up, but Bebe turned. It was Lambhi Ammah. She had finished her morning’s work and had brought her tea out with her, intrigued by the commotion the girls were making. She nodded a greeting at Bebe. She swaggered past the door and settled herself on her haunches in the courtyard. Bebe wondered if it really was a swagger. It looked as though she swung her hip to ease a pain or stiffness in her right knee. She hadn’t noticed that before. Lambhi Ammah drank her tea slowly; she seemed tired. Bebe recalled the recent dread she had felt knowing that she would have to speak to her again. But she felt no dread now. What was there to fear from a choori? It was the weight of the radio in her hands that filled her with a terrible sense of foreboding. She knew it would stand on the trunk in her room in the daytime, and the others would ask her to bring it out in the evenings, and they would discuss its health every time it was turned on: “The sound was better yesterday,” “Maybe it needs new cells,” “Move the aerial the other way.” And then, “There, that’s better.” It would comfort them.
An old song was playing. The girls said it was boring. Lambhi Ammah had closed her eyes as she listened; she was almost smiling. Bebe recognized the piece vaguely, but she had no memory for songs or singers. She wondered about asking Lambhi Ammah if she knew it. It looked as if she did. But she didn’t ask. She got up to go to the big house, to begin her working day. She handed the radio to the girls, and they held it between them with a deep, somber seriousness. But before she left, she turned up the volume, so that Lambhi Ammah could hear better the song that was playing.